Is the New Testament more tolerant than the Old Testament? Did Jesus make a change in the tolerance of God? This article discusses compulsion and tolerance, and the freedom of love.

Source: Ambtelijk Contact. 3 pages. Translated by Wim Kanis.

Tolerance What does the Bible say?

To what extent can or should we even show it?

The Bible🔗

Is the Bible a tolerant book? This is a question that has significant relevance to us in our times. Mr. Wilders, a Dutch parliamentarian and leader of the Party for Freedom, recently argued in favour of banning the Koran because of passages in it that are intolerant and even violent toward those of other faiths. But what about the Bible in this regard? Lately we do not hear that much about Christian fundamentalists calling for a “holy war” by appealing to the Bible, but how would public opinion and politics react if a group of them would suddenly stand up and take action?

Within the limited space allowed for this article, I cannot really deal extensively with the question, which is being hotly debated at present, and I am pleased to refer here to a recent study by my colleague from Apeldoorn, Dr. Peels. Nevertheless, something should be said about it. The idea is often heard that the New Testament reflects a spirit of love, and is therefore very tolerant. Often the New Testament has been contrasted with the Old Testament in this respect, and the Jews have been accused of adhering to a religion of a God who forbids having other gods before him and who also practises revenge. It gave a sense of “good feeling” to have the uniqueness of the gospel expressed in this way, in contrast to others.

However, this does not fly. The New Testament is certainly not more “tolerant” in this sense than the Old Testament; it leaves no doubt that there is only one Name given under the heavens by which we must be saved. Nor is the message of the gospel a noncommittal offer; instead, it comes to us with a command of faith and repentance. We cannot get away with saying that the LORD no longer deals with people as he did with Korah, Dathan and Abiram in the Old Testament (Num. 16). What about Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), and Herod in Acts 12:23? It is and remains a fearful prospect to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31), and the book of Revelation shows that a battle of cosmic proportions is going on, and that God casts people into the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8).

But surely Jesus is meek and humble of heart! True — and that is not just an image we have made of him either. He says so himself (Matt. 11:29). Yet this does not prevent him from driving the money-changers from the temple area in a holy zeal for the house of the Lord, and even from using a whip (John 2:14-17). However, there were no casualties, and when Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Christ restored it. How do we put all these data together into one coherent picture?

I believe that we can say that while the Old Testament shows that all forms of rebellion against the LORD are intolerable to him, the New Testament proclaims that God in Christ puts away sin by way of the cross. From the outside it appears as if Christ allows all his suffering to befall him passively, yet the Gospels leave no doubt that he is and remains the one who is active in all of it. God has not changed. In fact, the question to us only becomes more urgent: how will we be able to escape when we do not take seriously so great a salvation as God has prepared in Christ (see Heb. 2:3)?

No Compulsion🔗

One thing should be emphatically added here: God does not use force to bring us to faith. “No one believes unless he does so willingly,” Augustine said. So when our distant ancestors were forced to be baptized with an appeal to Luke 14:23 (“force them to enter”), this was not in accordance with the way and message of Jesus Christ. The LORD grants us humans faith by his Spirit, and those who come to faith will not and cannot do otherwise, but there is no question of coercion. When the people in Galilee were annoyed by Jesus’ “hard” words and turned away from him en masse, Jesus asked his disciples whether they too did not want to leave. Peter answered on behalf of all of them, “Leaving you is not an option; you alone have words of eternal life!” (John 6:68). Peter said this without compulsion.

There are two elements that I believe we need to hold on to, especially after what has been said. In the first place: It is not in accordance with the facts to state, with an appeal to the New Testament, that love exceeds all things, and that therefore we should not bring the struggle for the truth of the gospel to a head. In the battle for truth it is all about our salvation, about the way by which the Holy Spirit can and will pour out love into human hearts! In addition, it is essentially alien to the faith to impose it by force. Those who try to do so show that they do not understand what faith is in the biblical sense. How do these two elements truly come together in a human heart and how do these shape a life that reflects the love of Christ?

What Is Tolerance?🔗

The question is: what is true tolerance? I believe that for a proper Christian answer we can learn from Luther. He described the depth of sin as man’s “not having the willingness to let God be God, and desiring to be god himself”. The question arises as to how God can even tolerate such people on earth. How is it that he allows wheat and the weeds to grow together until the harvest (Matt. 13:30)? Why does he not separate them now already?

Luther replies, “Do you realize also that God cannot have joy even in believers, but that within himself he also has to endure them in the fact that they are sinners?” We can think of Jesus’ exclamation in the Gospel: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you” (Mark 9:19) ? Jesus is not speaking these words to his opponents, but to his disciples! When believers realize how much the LORD has to bear with them, it will cause them to be mild and reserved in their judgment of others.

The fact that God tolerates sinners however, does not mean that he merely checks his anger. God himself brings the sin of the world to the cross. Luther speaks here of the tolerantia crucis (the forbearance of the cross). Thus the LORD, in the way he treats us, cuts through the righteousness people think they have and on the basis of which they think they are entitled to some form of reward—and at the same time are looking forward to punishment for others! In this way the “tolerating” of non-Christians contributes to the destruction of the “old nature,” which has the deep-seated tendency to elevate itself above others. In addition, a true inward tolerance for others arises in this way, as an act of love that takes shape as a prayer for those people who make their lives difficult or even impossible. It is in this way that believers learn to follow Christ, who prayed for his executioners even as they crucified him.

The Freedom of Love🔗

For Luther, the exclusivity of faith goes hand in hand with the tolerance of love. When Christ’s followers live in a non-violent, non-assertive, and non-aggressive way, they express a living reference to him in all their weakness in themselves and in their strength in Christ. Jesus gave an example of true tolerance in Matthew 5:38-42. When he speaks of a “forcing to go one mile” , he is referring to the right the Romans had granted themselves to force citizens of the countries they occupied to carry a burden for them over a distance of one mile. It does not take much effort for us to imagine in what kind of icy atmosphere such a joint mile must often have been travelled. And it was not only the burden itself; it would have been very painful each time to experience first hand what it meant that your country was occupied by the Romans.

When you now offered the Roman to carry that burden for another mile, you would do something he would not have expected in the least. In doing so you would show that you were free from all those feelings of hatred and revenge that might consume a human heart. This surprising attitude might cause the other person to question what motivated you to do it, and would offer a perspective on the love of Christ.

Such a surprising action is not a matter of sewing a “foreign patch” on the garment of tolerance, as the New Testament speaks about it, but instead it results from it and is an essential part of it.

It should be clear from the foregoing that it matters a great deal, if not everything, what one understands as tolerance. As Christians, we can, in practice, go a long way with non-Christians who behave respectfully toward those who think differently. It does make a big difference, however, whether one puts the question of truth on a side-track, or whether one truly knows Christ and has learned gentleness from him.

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